close-up of cacti

Xeriscaping is Not Cacti and Rocks, But Also Is

As the landscaping industry grows more responsive to water savings and sustainable landscapes, the buzz around xeriscaping only gets louder.

But what is a xeriscape? Does it involve creating a desert, a succulent garden, or a pit of gravel or lava rock? Is it an ecological practice or an aesthetic? Or a little of all of the above?

The answer: it’s complicated. And often misconstrued. Yes, landscapers and property owners can use xeriscaping to meet their conservation and aesthetic goals. No, that doesn’t always mean creating a desert — but it sometimes does.

Sound execution of a xeriscape actually depends more on choosing the right plants to build soil health and minimize inputs.

a rain garden, growing despite summer heat
To create a drought-tolerant landscape, a designer must put the right plants in the right places; (photo/Maas Verde)

What is Xeriscape?

“Xeriscape” comes partly from Denver, Colorado’s city water department. Denver Water coined the term in 1981 to describe a revised set of landscape techniques in response to a prolonged drought.

The word xeriscape itself combines “landscape” with “xeros,” the Greek word for “dry.” But the word was built to sell the idea, not fully describe it. That’s what the seven principles of xeriscaping are for.

These seven concepts define xeriscaping beyond its root words and position it as a landscape method that can be applied anywhere. They are:

  • Planning and Design
  • Soil Improvements
  • Efficient Irrigation
  • Plant Zones
  • Mulches
  • Turf Alternatives
  • Maintenance

If you’re familiar with ecological landscaping, these all sound very familiar. In Maas Verde’s view, ecological landscaping leverages natural sciences to create healthy communities of diverse native plants and wildlife. It relies on all seven of the principles above.

If you compare other descriptions, the same strong resemblance between “ecological landscaping” and “xeriscaping” stands out.

“Xeriscape landscaping promotes water efficiency by using plants that are native and adaptable” to the local climate, Denver Water says.

a gravel yard with a downspout pointing into bare gravel
There are xeriscapes, and then there are gravel yards. This designer could use a swale or rain garden to absorb water. Instead, this downspout will just cause runoff and weed growth; (photo/Marc Opperman)

“An ecological approach to landscape design takes the fundamental horticultural precept — right plant, right place — and views it through a biogeographical lens,” wrote Travis Beck, author of Principles of Ecological Landscape Design. “Where do plants grow, and why do they grow there?”

Murat Ozyavuz, professor of landscape architecture and author of multiple landscape and natural resource books, also defined xeriscaping in a 2012 book.

“The goal of xeriscape is to create a visually attractive landscape that uses plants selected for their water efficiency. It is also an environmentally sound landscape, requiring less fertilizer and fewer chemicals,” he wrote.

Applying these ideas in Arizona or West Texas would result in a landscape that looked like the stereotypical xeriscape. Cultivating native species in arid conditions with minimal irrigation and chemicals naturally produces less plant cover. The xeriscape of the popular imagination is an ecologically compatible landscape in these conditions.

It’s only a xeriscape if it uses native species. This one is located in Southern California; (photo/Creative Commons)

Central Texas Xeriscape

But Central Texas is not a desert — so a xeriscape installed here shouldn’t be, either.

“Here in Central Texas, we decouple the imagery of xeriscape and think about the word. Then, we’re talking about drought-tolerant plants, mulches, and good soil. That’s a better vision of these techniques for us,” Maas Verde project manager Marc Opperman said.

So, do xeriscapes in Austin actually resemble rain gardens and native plant beds? I checked Opperman’s assessment against Denver Water’s recommendations.

Denver averages about half as much precipitation as Austin each year. Even in the city’s semi-arid climate, the recommended xeriscape designs are almost entirely native plant-covered. As research continues to demonstrate, there is not a more efficient way to produce a resilient landscape that meets aesthetic and budget goals.

a blooming native planted texas garden
A xeriscape doesn’t have to be a desert — it just has to demand minimal resources. Harvested rainwater irrigates this native-planted garden; (photo/Maas Verde)

“Too often designers force plants into the wrong places,” Beck wrote in Principles. “Throughout the United States many cultivated landscapes are out of touch with their surroundings.

Designed landscapes that match their plants and the communities in which they are grown to the prevailing climate should take less effort to create and maintain. They will also be better able to provide habitat for local wildlife, better connect to regional landscape networks, and better bounce back after predictable disturbances such as fire, windstorms, or floods.”

Featured image: (photo/Steve Davies via Flickr)



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